Particles and Puzzle Pieces: Review of Quantum Radio
Quantum Radio. A.G. Riddle. Head of Zeus, March 2023.
A.G. Riddle’s Quantum Radio is a fast-paced military sci-fi adventure that morphs into alternative history. It’s full of interesting concepts, but on a narrative level it makes a lot of promises that it doesn’t quite fulfill. My father always used the analogy of the writer as a juggler — you throw a lot of balls in the air at the beginning, and if you want your ending to be satisfying, then you have to catch them all. I felt that this book threw a lot of interesting balls up in the air, but fumbled the catch.
We open up on a physicist named Tyson Klein who has discovered that alien particles are appearing in experiments with the particle collider. He presents his thesis to his colleagues at the European Organization of Nuclear Research, postulating that this must mean extra-dimensional beings are communicating with us and potentially controlling the course of history. When he survives an assassination attempt the night after his presentation, he realizes he is probably onto something that someone doesn’t want him to figure out. From there, we follow Ty into the bowels of American bureaucracy as the military takes control of his discovery, and then to an alternate universe where World War II never ended.
While I found the book engaging — I absolutely sped through it — I found that it raised questions far more than it gave answers, which gives the constant feeling of “hey, what about that mystery from ten chapters ago? Are we ever coming back to that, or no? No?” In a book where the initial concept is “everything that is seemingly random is actually controlled by higher entities,” one might expect the novel to be driving towards some kind of great plan. Instead, the randomness felt like…well, randomness.
My main issue with the book is that it made a lot of enticing promises at the beginning that weren’t fulfilled. One is simply a question of genre — the first scene promises interaction with beings from another universe, which to me sets out plenty of possibilities to discuss the multiverse, aliens, extra-dimensional beings, you name it. (I was immediately put in mind of The Three-Body Problem, which starts with a very similar hard-science premise of extraterrestrials altering the course of human history.) For the entire first half of Quantum Radio, we are in American-bureaucracy-land waiting for that revelation.
Instead of learning more about these mysterious extra-dimensional beings, that narrative is catapulted into an alternate-history centered around World War II morphing into a totally different war. I was pretty disoriented, and not in a fun way. This also gets into tricky territory because in the minds of many, World War II immediately brings to mind the Holocaust. Since this is a reality where the War never ended, this raises a lot of questions about what happened to the Holocaust. As the story is completely centered on American and Germany, the genocide aspect of the war is never addressed, despite the huge info-dumps of alternate history that we get when the characters discover a history museum in the parallel dimension. We’re left with a subtle undercurrent of what feels like antiquated patriotism.
The other promise was that of a mother-son relationship. When we’re first introduced to Ty, we get a flashback to a tender memory of his mother, an evolutionary-biologist, telling him that kindness is the best way to deal with fear. I loved this beginning, and it made me think that this relationship would be further explored, and maybe even be a through-line for the entire story. While the narrative is bookended with this relationship, we never have a chance to see it develop, so it felt more like a narrative tool than an actual connection between characters. This beginning also led me to believe that “kindness as a method of combating fear” would be a recurring theme throughout the novel, but again it really only came back at the end, thus making the villain’s unexpected altruistic turn feel out of place. There was a smattering of other plot points that seemed tossed in the air and then forgotten: Ty’s love interest in the first half of the novel disappears and is replaced with a new one in the second half; Ty’s identical twin brother is in jail for some reason; Ty has a sister who’s repeatedly mentioned but never becomes relevant. Perhaps all this is set up for a sequel, but since my questions far outweighed the answers, I wasn’t invested enough to want to spend more time with these characters.
I did enjoy the number of puzzles that the characters must solve in this story, but I often felt like I as the reader didn’t have all the pieces, so I wasn’t able to engage with them in a satisfying way. On the micro-level, I wasn’t able to feel like I was solving any of the little puzzles because Ty kept solving problems with “gut instincts,” which meant I didn’t have the opportunity as a reader to piece things together myself. For example, when the US military first discovers that the extra-dimensional beings are communicating with them, Ty knows instinctively that the message contains instructions to build a particle collider, and the genomes of four living people. Without any hints for the audience to guess this, it feels like a forgone opportunity for a puzzle. On the macro-level, it meant I had no way of predicting where the plot was going, which for me meant that it lacked a sense of progress. It was more, “well, this might as well happen.”
Because there were so many gestures to profundity (lots of references to “the greatest mysteries of human existence” and such), I was expecting something that really made me reflect on the world we live in. Instead, the conclusion seemed to be, “everything wrong with the world was caused by extra-dimensional beings interfering for unclear reasons,” which just didn’t sit right with me. For a reader who’s looking for fast-paced military sci-fi that leans more into the military than the sci-fi, Quantum Radio is a good match. For the reader who wants their alternate-history stories to actively engage with history, for their extra-dimensional being stories to actually have some extra-dimensional beings, and for their jugglers to catch all the balls, it’s not a great fit.
Alex Kingsley is a writer and game designer currently based in Madrid. They are a cofounder of the new media company Strong Branch Productions, and the creator of sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure. Their fiction has appeared in Radon Journal, Sci-Fi Lampoon, Strangely Funny, and more. Their SFF-related non-fiction has appeared in Interstellar Flight Magazine and ASPEC Journal. Their games can be downloaded pay-what-you-will at alexyquest.itch.io. You can find them on Twitter.
This article was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this title.
ARB is a BookShop.org affiliate and may receive a portion of book sales purchased through links on this page. Please visit our Support & Transparency page to learn more.